Audendo magnus tegitur timor
By audacity, great fears are concealed.Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (Lucan), in Pharsalia
It is always fashionable to tease our friends a bit about their new year’s resolutions. Most of this teasing is good-natured self-awareness about our collective inability to keep those commitments (excepting the barely concealed rage of gym regulars in January). The rest is eye-rolling skepticism about the value of resolutions at all.
I’m on the other side of that trade.
No, you’re not going to keep your resolutions. And yes, you should absolutely make them. You should never miss a chance to say out loud what it is that you want to make out of yourself. So, perhaps a bit uncharacteristically, I’d like to offer a bit of advice to our readers who are just beginning their investment careers and spending this new year’s day thinking about how to get off to the right start:
Act boldly on the things you believe. And hold loosely to them.
As you will discover – or have already discovered – the investment industry is built on the stories people tell about themselves and others. Because of those stories, nearly every young professional will find their work uncomfortable for a time measured in years, not months. Some of that discomfort will be based on gaps in your knowledge that are real and must be closed. But that won’t be the main source of your discomfort. No, the unsettled feeling nearly always begins with intimidation at the endless confidence of practically everyone you encounter. After a few years of exposure to the industry, that intimidation seamlessly transitions into befuddlement that so many of those endlessly confident people are so…so very ordinary. Smarter than the average guy or gal on the street, sure, but ordinary in their thinking, consensus-driven and fearful in their judgments, motivated by status and money and approbation and all the things that motivate us all. That confidence, you soon realize, is almost always little more than a story these people are telling themselves and others.
To the intellectually and morally indifferent, knowing what to do with this discomfort is easy. They’ve charted out a path for you, so follow it. Make some money, upgrade your apartment annually, gun for titles and wait for that first VP bonus to put a down payment on that house outside the city. If you don’t care about what it is that you actually did, a smart person can make a comfortable life in America by selling little more than confident answers to the earnest questions of corporate executives and really wealthy people.
To the intellectually honest, it’s a lot harder. You want your work to mean something. You don’t want to be a charlatan. Perhaps you have been complimented on your modeling, writing or analysis. Perhaps even now you are planning a path of quiet, painstaking excellence, of ensuring that your work product is always perfect, that you have thought of every possible criticism in advance. Perhaps you believe that your work will speak for itself, and that over time, the right people will ultimately see it and reward you for it.
You are wrong.
If I can impress anything upon the young professionals in our readership, it is this: if you want to avoid the life of a professional bullshit artist or a life resigned to charlatanry, the secret is not to hide in an introverted shell trusting that your good work will out. The secret – if we can truly call it that – is to act boldly while cultivating an unceasing, insatiable, transparent willingness to consider all the ways you might be wrong.
Audacity, not pride.
There is a balancing act between acting on your beliefs with boldness and treating the priors that led to those beliefs with humility. It takes time to figure out. You will screw it up. You will come out of a meeting or two feeling like you sold more confidence in an idea than you really had. You will come up with an answer to a colleague or client’s question on the spot that will make you feel guilty afterward. Did you overstate your case? You’re human. You will do better. Taking this time every year to affirm that you want to keep doing better matters, and it helps.
In fact, that’s part of the reason we write about this idea so much in different terms – because saying it out loud matters. Wise as serpents, harmless as doves. Lawful good doesn’t mean lawful stupid. This is what we write about, and it’s all the same concept: be bold in facing the world, but keep mercy, grace and humility in your heart along the way.
This is my resolution for the year, and my fervent hope for each of you, especially those navigating still-young careers: Clear Eyes and Full Hearts.